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Stefanie Onder, James T. Erbaugh, and Georgia Christina Kosmidou-Bradley

The loss of Asian forests represents one of the most significant changes in contemporary land cover. Between 2000 and 2020 alone, an area twice the size of Malaysia has lost its tree cover as measured by Earth observation data. These trends have significant repercussions for greenhouse gas emissions, carbon storage, the conservation of biodiversity, and the wellbeing of Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLCs), making Asian deforestation a phenomenon of global concern. There are many immediate factors that drive deforestation across Asia, but the conversion to commodity agriculture is the leading cause. Most notably, the expansion of oil palm and rubber plantations by both multinational corporations and smallholders has led to dramatic conversion of forests. The production of timber as well as pulp and paper has further contributed to significant deforestation, with the evolution of each sector often driven by government policies, such as logging bans. However, it is the underlying drivers (i.e., distal and proximate causes) that determine where and when commodity production displaces forest cover. They are particularly challenging to tackle in a globalized world, where consumption patterns driven by local population and income growth lead to environmental and social change in distant producer countries, including in Asia. Certification programs and legality requirements have been put in place to address these externalities with varying success. Deforestation in Asia is also facilitated by weak governance and regulatory frameworks, where forest rights are often unclear, and financial, technological, and human resources for forest monitoring are limited. Several contemporary forest governance strategies seek to promote sustainable management of Asian forests. Financial mechanisms such as reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) and payments for ecosystem services (PES) schemes seek to provide economic incentives for forest conservation. Pledges and activities to remove deforestation from commodity supply chains seek to respond to consumer demand, promote corporate environmental and social responsibility, and reduce the extent to which commodity supply chains contribute to Asian deforestation. And multiple state-led initiatives across Asia to empower IPLCs aim to align forest management objectives between national governments, subnational administrations, and local people. Assessing the impact of interventions related to financial mechanisms, corporate responsibility, and local forest governance will be critical to shaping the future of Asian forest cover change.

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Deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia destroys environmental services that are important for the whole world, and especially for Brazil itself. These services include maintaining biodiversity, avoiding global warming, and recycling water that provides rainfall to Amazonia, to other parts of Brazil, such as São Paulo, and to neighboring countries, such as Argentina. The forest also maintains the human populations and cultures that depend on it. Deforestation rates have gone up and down over the years with major economic cycles. A peak of 27,772 km2/year was reached in 2004, followed by a major decline to 4571 km2/year in 2012, after which the rate trended upward, reaching 7989 km2/year in 2016 (equivalent to about 1.5 hectares per minute). Most (70%) of the decline occurred by 2007, and the slowing in this period is almost entirely explained by declining prices of export commodities such as soy and beef. Government repression measures explain the continued decline from 2008 to 2012, but an important part of the effect of the repression program hinges on a fragile base: a 2008 decision that makes the absence of pending fines a prerequisite for obtaining credit for agriculture and ranching. This could be reversed at the stroke of a pen, and this is a priority for the powerful “ruralist” voting bloc in the National Congress. Massive plans for highways, dams, and other infrastructure in Amazonia, if carried out, will add to forces in the direction of increased deforestation. Deforestation occurs for a wide variety of reasons that vary in different historical periods, in different locations, and in different phases of the process at any given location. Economic cycles, such as recessions and the ups and downs of commodity markets, are one influence. The traditional economic logic, where people deforest to make a profit by producing products from agriculture and ranching, is important but only a part of the story. Ulterior motives also drive deforestation. Land speculation is critical in many circumstances, where the increase in land values (bid up, for example, as a safe haven to protect money from hyperinflation) can yield much higher returns than anything produced by the land. Even without the hyperinflation that came under control in 1994, highway projects can yield speculative fortunes to those who are lucky or shrewd enough to have holdings along the highway route. The practical way to secure land holdings is to deforest for cattle pasture. This is also critical to obtaining and defending legal title to the land. In the past, it has also been the key to large ranches gaining generous fiscal incentives from the government. Money laundering also makes deforestation attractive, allowing funds from drug trafficking, tax evasion, and corruption to be converted to “legal” money. Deforestation receives impulses from logging, mining, and, especially, road construction. Soybeans and cattle ranching are the main replacements for forest, and recently expanded export markets are giving strength to these drivers. Population growth and household dynamics are important for areas dominated by small farmers. Extreme degradation, where tree mortality from logging and successive droughts and forest fires replace forest with open nonforest vegetation, is increasing as a kind of deforestation, and is likely to increase much more in the future. Controlling deforestation requires addressing its multiple causes. Repression through fines and other command-and-control measures is essential to avoid a presumption of impunity, but these controls must be part of a broader program that addresses underlying causes. The many forms of government subsidies for deforestation must be removed or redirected, and the various ulterior motives must be combated. Industry agreements restricting commodity purchases from properties with illegal deforestation (or from areas cleared after a specified cutoff) have a place in efforts to contain forest loss, despite some problems. A “soy moratorium” has been in effect since 2006, and a “cattle agreement” since 2009. Creation and defense of protected areas is an important part of deforestation control, including both indigenous lands and a variety of kinds of “conservation units.” Containing infrastructure projects is essential if deforestation is to be held in check: once roads are built, much of what happens is outside the government’s control. The notion that the 2005–2012 deforestation slowdown means that the process is under control and that infrastructure projects can be built at will is extremely dangerous. One must also abandon myths that divert efforts to contain deforestation; these include “sustainable logging” and the use of “green” funds for expensive programs to reforest degraded lands rather than retain areas of remaining natural forests. Finally, one must provide alternatives to support the rural population of small farmers. Large investors, on the other hand, can fend for themselves. Tapping the value of the environmental services of the forest has been proposed as an alternative basis for sustaining both the rural population and the forest. Despite some progress, a variety of challenges remain. One thing is clear: most of Brazil’s Amazonian deforestation is not “development.” Trading the forest for a vast expanse of extensive cattle pasture does little to secure the well-being of the region’s rural population, is not sustainable, and sacrifices Amazonia’s most valuable resources.